“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end . . . Hope, O my soul, hope. You can know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes away quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain and turns a very short time into a long one.” — St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)
At his audience on Wednesday, April 3, Pope Francis spoke at length of the beautiful privilege women have been given to proclaim the Gospel and to witness to the Truth and Beauty of the Resurrected Jesus in the world. This vocation is real, necessary and of vital importance. It is a vocation that can be answered only by women and in a uniquely special way, because it is a role they were made to fulfill. True, authentic feminism embraces and cherishes this vocation, does not seek to pervert it into something it is not, and strives to fulfill it with all the gifts and graces at its disposal.
“But how was the truth of faith in Christ’s Resurrection transmitted? There are two kinds of witness in the New Testament: some are in the form of the profession of the faith, namely, synthetic formulas that indicate the center of the faith. Instead, others are in the form of an account of the event of the Resurrection and the facts connected to it. The form of the profession of faith, for example, is what we have just heard, or that of the Letter to the Romans where Paul writes: ” for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved “(10.9). From the earliest days of the Church, faith in the Mystery of Death and Resurrection of Jesus is steadfast and clear.
Today, however, I would like to dwell the second, on testimony in the form of the accounts that we find in the Gospels. First, we note that the first witnesses to this event were the women. At dawn, they go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, and find the first sign: the empty tomb (Mk 16:1). This is followed by an encounter with a Messenger of God who proclaims: Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, he is not here, he is risen (cf. vv. 5-6). The women are driven by love and know how to accept this proclamation with faith: they believe, and immediately transmit it, they do not keep it for themselves. They cannot contain the joy of knowing that Jesus is alive, the hope that fills their heart. This should also be the same in our lives. Let us feel the joy of being Christian! We believe in the Risen One who has conquered evil and death! Let us also have the courage to “go out” to bring this joy and light to all the places of our lives! The Resurrection of Christ is our greatest certainty, it is our most precious treasure! How can we not share this treasure, this beautiful certainty with others! It’s not just for us it’s to be transmitted, shared with others this is our testimony!
Another element. In the professions of faith of the New Testament, only men are remembered as witnesses of the Resurrection, the Apostles, but not the women. This is because, according to the Jewish Law of the time, women and children were not considered reliable, credible witnesses. In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role. Here we can see an argument in favor of the historicity of the Resurrection: if it were a invented, in the context of that time it would not have been linked to the testimony of women. Instead, the evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses. This tells us that God does not choose according to human criteria: the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, simple and humble people, the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women. This is beautiful, and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren that Christ is Risen! Mothers go forward with this witness! What matters to God is our heart, if we are open to Him, if we are like trusting children. But this also leads us to reflect on how in the Church and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord, in following him and communicating his face, because the eyes of faith always need the simple and profound look of love. The Apostles and disciples find it harder to believe in the Risen Christ, not the women however! Peter runs to the tomb, but stops before the empty tomb; Thomas has to touch the wounds of the body of Jesus with his hands. In our journey of faith it is important to know and feel that God loves us, do not be afraid to love: faith is professed with the mouth and heart, with the word and love.” — Excerpt from the text of the Pope’s General Audience, April 3, 2013
“. . . Mary stood weeping outside the tomb and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” John 20: 11-18
“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes [. . .] draws man out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart; but, in so doing, it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings.” — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI
“Faith in the resurrection of Jesus says that there is a future for every human being . . . God exists: that is the real message of Easter. Anyone who even begins to grasp what this means also knows what it means to be redeemed.” — Benedict XVI
In the weeks since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation I’ve heard that the Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and that the new Holy Father would need to work hard to bring the Church up to speed with the modern world. In case you’re not clear as to what constitutes an identity crisis, it’s defined as: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.
Uncertain. . . confused . . . insecure about one’s role in society.
It would be so much easier for the world, wouldn’t it, if there really were an identity crisis, so much easier to see the Church as a toppling medieval edifice, beaten down by the blast holes of scandal and internal conflicts, visibly weakened and unable to withstand the pressures of a new world order which demands the right to live outside her shadow, indeed which often seems to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everyone if she simply ceased to exist at all.
Remembering Who’s in Charge
Without Christ, the Church can do nothing. This has been shown time and again, all too painfully, in recent years and throughout her history. However, the opposite is also true — firm rootedness in Christ in the very midst of great weakness and turmoil leads to great strength. This paradox is impossible for a secular world to understand, but it is this foundational paradox which has been illustrated so beautifully and brilliantly in recent weeks by the extreme humility of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.
In his final Wednesday audience after announcing his resignation of the papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI echoed a sentiment that has perhaps been echoed in the hearts of all of the faithful in recent years. Benedict said that during his papacy he often felt like one of the apostles in the boat with Jesus during the great storm on the Sea of Galilee: “The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light wind, days in which the catch was abundant; there have also been moments when the waters were agitated, and the wind blew contrary, as in all of the history of the Church, and the Lord appeared to be sleeping . . . But I have always known that in that boat there was the Lord and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine; it is not ours; but it is his [Christ’s]. And he does not let it sink. It is him who steers its, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because he has wanted it this way.”
When Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock on whom he would build his church, he also said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That includes the hell of our own weakness and sinfulness, as well as the the malice and hostility of statesmen, ideologies, and other entities that would seek to destroy her. Christ, and not men, control the Church. His presence is never absent, despite the obstacles our human weakness raises to His attempts to steer.
Weakness + Purification = Humility > STRENGTH
Contrary to the what the world defines as strong, useful and worthy of respect, the Church finds her strength in an acknowledgement of her weakness, her brokenness. These things lead to the necessary acceptance and admittance of the truth that those entrusted with her care and keeping — in effect, all of the faithful — are but weak, sinful, and fragile vessels capable of doing great damage when they seek success and progress apart from fidelity to Christ. In spite of this truth, or perhaps even in some way because of it, the Church stands. We, the faithful, participate in the life of the Church in some sense to the extent that we live with a deepening awareness of this truth and bind ourselves more and more strongly to Christ. To the extent that the faithful work towards living a deeper humility is the extent to which the Church is strong. Her strength is made perfect in our weakness. Its when we forget this that the threat of what the secular world terms an “identity crisis” might loom, when we forget that we are fragile vessels, desperately in need of God’s grace and help, when we think we can do it our way and do it alone.
Catholics believe in the purification that comes through confession, through open acknowledgment of sin in the sacrament of penance. The Church is being purified, no doubt about it. And this purification must go on in each of the faithful, continually, through ever deeper examination and admission of the ways in which each individual obstructs the work of God’s grace in the world and the ways in which we each turn away in infidelity. This ongoing process of purification does not mean the Church is weakening or no longer knows who or what she is. A diamond in the rough is quite ugly and is a diamond in its essence regardless of what it looks like on the outside. When refined and cut deeply and polished roughly by the master jeweler, the ugly rock takes on a lustre unknown and becomes what it was always meant to be, its essence revealed. The Church, and the faithful who comprise it, is just such a diamond. Its essence is total lustrousness, pure beauty, and absolute truth, but our human sin and weakness can block God’s work in crafting it. Sin and the admission of it opens the door for God to get in and do some intensive work on the facets that will lend even more brilliance over time. The Church has no identity crisis – we know it to be a diamond in the rough, striving for perfection in the hands of the One who is all perfection, all truth, and all beauty.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” The truth is, the Church exists and is strong and vital. The truth is the Church is being purified and refined through just discipline that will clarify and beautify her in her essence. The truth is we have a Pope and he has set an example of humility which, while it is early to speculate, seems one he intends to be a signature focus of his papacy. The truth is that Pope Francis has already declared the path he intends to follow as he leads the Church and shepherds his flock. It is the same path his namesake, St. Francis, walked hundreds of years ago in his faithful effort to rebuild a Church weakened by sin. In his letter for Lent written prior to his election to the papacy, Pope Francis wrote:
“Lent is presented us as a shout of truth and certain hope that comes us to say ‘Yes, it is possible to not slap on makeup, and not draw plastic smiles as if nothing happened.’ Yes, it is possible that all is made new and different because God remains ‘rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive’ and He encourages us to begin anew time and again.”
The path of humility, of walking humbly with God, can only lead to the Cross, which leads surely to Christ, and so also to true strength and greatness. Pope Francis shows the world that the Church is completely certain, clear, and confidant in her identity. Viva il Papa! Viva il Chiesa!
“The God of love who gave us life sent His only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us.
The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.
Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — be our companion.” Henri Nouwen
“Christ is born to us today, in order that he may appear to the whole world through us.” — Thomas Merton
Words to live by on the Feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face:
“If I did not simply live from one moment to the next, it would be impossible for me to keep my patience. I can see only the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to think about the future. We get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future. It is such a folly to pass one’s time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus.”
St. Therese, help me always to believe as you did, in God’s great love for me, so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day.
For more information and resources about St. Therese of Lisieux, click here.
One of the very best books I read this summer — perhaps all year — was Christian McEwan’s lovely World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. I posted an excerpt here that really spoke to me. Christian points true north in her recommendation that we reclaim quiet and slowness, and relearn to savor awareness in lives too often gone awry by speed, haste, and multi-tasking, our creativity and imagination suffocated by the noise that attends these harried, unfocused but increasingly “normal” behaviors. I have an intrinsic horror of chaos and I do not believe it is possible for me to live a truly creative life, in either a spiritual or an artistic sense, in an environment that seeks to encourage chaos instead of order, harmony, and balance.
The truth is, I don’t have to participate in the chaos. I do have a choice, though I may be made to feel as though I don’t, or that in exercising my choice to slow down and swim on my own side of the stream I am somehow “not with it” and need to “get up to speed.” I’ve been struggling with the sense that my life, my mind, my health, and my world have all been unravelling with greater speed and urgency over the last couple of years, so Christian’s book was just what the doctor ordered. I took quite seriously her encouragement to “Choose to refuse,” and have been practicing the simple art of saying “No,” along with the attendant art of not apologizing or feeling guilty for saying it and using the resulting new-found time to be more available to the opportunities God is offering to me in the sacrament of the present moment.
Being more present to what is happening in the moment is necessarily going to look different for each person. It all depends on how plugged in or overextended you are. A good friend of mine is experimenting with unplugging from the Internet each weekend to allow for quiet spaces to process her writing. One thing I’m doing is trying to stay with the task at hand and resist heartily the urge to multi-task — meaning if I’m helping my son with his math lesson and the phone rings, I let it ring. This is extremely difficult to do because as a full-time mother and housewife, full-time home schooler, and part-time high school teacher I’ve got my hands full and there is rarely a moment when someone doesn’t want or need something from me. How do I meet everyone’s needs and still have something left over? Prayer is essential, but so is slowing down and making a place for quiet and a more moderate pace through the day.
One of the things people praise our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for is his ability to make the person with whom he is speaking feel like the only person in the world. This is a tall order. But should it be? Why is it so hard for us to pay attention to who or what is right in front of us, without being distracted by something or someone else? Obviously, prudence and discretion is required: if I’m driving and my son wants me to look at or listen to something that requires too much of my attention, well, he simply has to wait. Keeping us alive and safe in that moment is the most important thing. But in this time of instant gratification and self-centered social interactions, this kind of patience is difficult to acquire and practice, for others and for ourselves. Yet it seems to me essential. Rather than whipping myself and others into higher speed, I must learn to be OK with allowing myself and others to move slow, appreciating the time it takes to be on task and do a job well and thoroughly before moving on to something else, and allowing the person I’m interacting with the gift of my full and undivided attention. Because God is present to me in the moment, not in the next thing on my to-do list, not in what I could be doing instead. But right there, in what I am doing NOW, in who I am with NOW.
Michelle Aldredge at gwarlingo has taken up the clarion call issued in McEwan’s World Enough and Time and has an article today about Christian and her book as part of her new series on creativity, which I highly recommend following — it’s worth every minute you’ll spend reading. You can also hear an interview with Christian on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon. Christian’s book is worth seeking out and reading slowly. Treat it like a personal retreat, a gift to yourself, a promise to take back some of what you might be allowing to be taken from you. Reading it may be a step towards reclaiming a more creatively aware, spiritually intuitive self. Not everyone is going to be happy with your choosing to refuse and not everyone will understand the grace that will be revealed to you in each moment that you choose to pay attention and focus on what is happening NOW. But you’ll be better for it and the inner change it will work in you will be evidence that you’re on the right path to living a saner, more peaceful, more present life.
What have you got to lose?